Internet Trend Watch for Libraries:

Volume 2, Number 11
November 1997

Editor's Note

Notes of a Successful Internet Trainer
by Stephanie Goodliffe

Glitch Management for Internet Instruction
by Dan Ream

Training Staff at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro
by Justin Ervin

Senior Surfing - Silver Strands in the Web
by Terry Dugas

Internet Toolkit


Other Issues

Current Issue

October 1997
Evaluating Internet Services

September 1997
Internet and Special Needs Patrons

August 1997
Databases on the Web

July 1997
Distance Education

June 1997
Anniversary Issue

May 1997
Researching the Internet

April 1997
Internet, Libraries and the Law

March 1997
Intelligent Agents

February 1997

January 1997
Internet and Youth

1996 Issues

Senior Surfing - Silver Strands in the Web
Terry Dugas

"Train Senior Citizens on the Internet? Why bother? Those old people are all technophobes who never even learned to program their VCR. After all, you can't teach an old dog new tricks!"

Or can you? Over the last three years the Naples Free-Net, in Collier county Florida, has initiated over 5000 residents in the mysteries of the Internet . In a county with one of the oldest populations in the US, the vast majority of our trainees, Free-Net Members, and even Staff Volunteers are over 50

Nationwide, statistics put to lie this "old dog" cliché. Despite growth of computers in the classroom, despite the media attention on GenX, the average age of the Internet user is steadily increasing. According to a Business Week poll, 45% of US websurfers are over 40, 20% are over 50. A December 1996 FIND/SVP survey reports that the average age of US surfers is over 38.

Why should the elderly be resistant to change? They have endured great changes in their lifetime. A child born during the Depression had no TV until Junior High, no air conditioning until college, no dishwashers or garbage disposals or vacuum cleaners until adulthood. Their times have been constantly a changin'.

There are, however, two major barriers to senior use of the Internet. The first is cost. With over 42% of Net surfers making more than $50,000 a year, and only 18% making less than $25,000, seniors on fixed incomes have less opportunity to purchase computers or to pay for Internet access. However, the growth of free public Internet access through libraries and Free-Nets will increase senior use.

The second barrier is relevance. At all of our seminars, our seniors want to know, "What's in it for me?" If the Internet is relevant to their needs and interests, they are eager to "go on-line." So, the secret to getting seniors excited about the Internet is showing how it can improve their quality of life.

Here too, clichés affect our training styles. Too often we equate old age with ill health and unleash on our audience a pestilence of medical related sites. How exciting -- site after site of depressing information about disease and infirmaries! Makes me want to run right home and log on.

Our seniors are much more interested in living than aging. They want to be "connected." Connected to their family, their friends, their hobbies and their interests. So the Free-Net two hour "Introduction to the Internet" focuses not on "internet connectivity" but "human connectivity."

Since family plays such an important role in our seniors' lives, we show them how to "reach out and touch someone" anywhere in the world, for free, with pictures and even sound! Yes, we start our training sessions with boring old E-mail.

Frankly, how often do seniors get mail from family -- the Christmas card, the phone call on holidays? Our seniors miss the intimacy of regular contact with their loved ones. They want to be a family not a relative. So we show how E-mail can maintain that intimacy.

Before each seminar, we send ourselves some mail and retrieve it during class. Then we read it with the group. "Dear Dad, Send Money! Love, Your Son." The audience always responds to this message with knowing laughter. When we reply, "Send information, currently paying 50 cents per word", they laugh again and begin to grasp both the ease and the potential of E-mail.

We then open E-mail containing a graphic file. "Dear Mom, Here's a picture of the new baby. He looks just like Dad." When the graphic file is opened and shows a picture taken from a 1950's horror movie poster, the audience again laughs and again grasps how easy E-mail can become part of their family rituals.

Once they learn to be "connected" using E-mail, we ask if they want to find friends, or family, or college roommates, or war buddies. They always say "yes," and they are always fascinated when we show them how easy it is using the Web.

Our seniors' introduction to the WWW isn't Search Engines, or Medical Sites, or even "SeniorNet." It's 555-1212 a link to the most popular "people finder" sites on the Net. Taking names from the audience, we look up phone numbers, mailing addresses, E-mail addresses of people important to the audience. Often members of the audience comment on a new address or a new phone number of a relative. Sometimes they will see that an old friend has an E-mail address and sometimes a web site!

We always note how useful the Internet can be to people interested in Genealogy. This is a very popular subject among seniors. And this single comment often leads to invitations to speak to Genealogy clubs and groups.

Once we've connected them to their people, we connect them to their passions- their hobbies and interests. Because of the leisure time available, seniors are often passionate about their pastimes. There's nothing better than exchanging information with someone just as passionate as you are.

Where are these kindred souls? How do you find them? On the Internet at Liszt, Tile.Net/Lists and Tile.Net/News. We use these to show seniors how to connect with mailing lists and Usenet news groups full of people who share their love for a hobby. Taking subjects from the audience, we'll search for matches and show the seniors how easy it is to subscribe to mailing lists or use Usenet.

We've rarely been stumped in a search, and the results are sometimes hilarious. One elderly lady had a granddaughter who collected Barbie dolls. A mailing list search turned up a nice hit under "collecting", but a Usenet search on Barbie turned up two sex groups. She laughed heartily and was pleased we also turned up alt.collecting.barbie and rec.collecting.dolls.

Since Collier county is a retirement area, we close by showing seniors how to remain connected to the community they left behind. Using the Newspaper Association of America Newspapers On-Line site, we search for their hometown paper. When possible, we like to choose small town papers; the news is always more interesting. There's the daily paper in Iowa, whose computer is named "elvis" and was last updated on 12/31/69. And there's the small paper in North Carolina that lists funerals on the Home Page (not much else to do there, I guess.)

Our two hours are almost up. Hopefully, by now our seniors know how the Internet can connect them to the people and the subjects they love. We have focused on E-mail, the simplest and most natural point of entry to the Internet. We've also teased them with the power of the WWW. Before we go to questions, we surf over to some of the most popular web sites among our seniors, SeniorNet, SeniorCom, and the "mother lode" of senior links, Internet and E-Mail Resources on Aging.

If we've done our job and made that "connection," our seniors will be back for more training, more surfing, and more growing.

[Terry Dugas is a founding Board Member and Past President of the Naples Free-Net , a free Internet Service Provider in Naples, Florida. He is Associate Director of WGCU-TV, the PBS affiliate of Florida Gulf Coast University and Adjunct Professor of Communications at Edison Community College. He's not yet a Senior, but his 4 and 6 year old sons often make him feel like one.]

Internet Trend Watch for Libraries is a publication of LEO: Librarians and Educators Online. All contents (c) 1997 by LEO. For information about LEO's services, visit our web site, call (617) 499-9676, or e-mail us at